Mental Health Awareness Week – Making exercise a kindness

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, BVA Regional Representative and runner Nat Scroggie discusses honestly her own ups and downs with exercise and mental health, particularly during COVID-19.

Nat Scroggie

I write a blog under the name This Vet Runs, where I record my experiences around exercise and wellbeing. So, you might think a piece on the benefits of exercise in Mental Health Awareness Week would be a fairly easy piece for me to write.

Normally, it would be. But the truth is since lockdown started, I have really struggled to find my motivation to exercise. With the magnitude of everything that has happened, I have found it hard to place the same importance on something as trivial as running.

I started running during vet school, mostly as a procrastination from revising for my fourth-year exams. I used to run alone in fields where I would not be recognised, and then hide in my house for hours afterwards waiting for my face to return to a normal colour! But I quickly noticed what an effect it was having on my mood. I would feel energised, calmer and more confident – and this feeling would last for days after each run.

Unlike the rest of my exam procrastination, I stuck with running. I came off anti-depressants the week before my final year rotations – and, so far, I have stayed off them. I knew running had made a huge difference, but it took suffering miscarriage for me to realise just how vital it had become for me.

I started from scratch again after surgery for my miscarriage: tentative first walks, to interval runs, to longer and longer runs. Five months later I crossed the line of my first marathon. Running was my time out from each day; on slow runs it was my space to think, on hard and fast runs it was the only thing that stopped me thinking. I often used to cry out on a run. Running gave me achievements away from veterinary and helped me learn to feel proud again of a body that had let me down so catastrophically. I thoroughly believe that I healed a little bit more with every mile.

Running has helped me through all the hard moments in life so far. So, it has been strange – and a little scary – that it has not been there for me through such a global crisis.

However, as much as I have struggled, I do know how much it helps me. So does my partner, who has done an excellent job of sending me off with the words “I think you need to run yourself”. On the days that I have got out so far (I think I have done 10 runs at the time of writing) they have made a huge difference to my day. These are the things that I have noticed:

  • My mind is quieter and calmer
  • I approach worries and problems more rationally
  • I make better food choices
  • It means I have to get dressed, and I have to shower and wash my hair – both of these make me feel better
  • I feel that I have achieved something, even if I do nothing else
  • I sleep much, much better
  • The rest of my day goes better because I am happier, and calmer, and more myself

You really do only need a pair of trainers, and a path. Start with slow jog intervals, and walk in between, then simply build it up; the coach to 5k apps are absolutely brilliant. Most importantly, remember nobody gives two hoots about speed – if you are out running you are a runner, so make sure you remember to feel proud about that.

It would be disingenuous to write a blog about the benefits of exercise during lockdown, and not be honest about the fact that I am finding it difficult. I am also conscious that it is easy to feel that the whole world is starting their day with Joe Wicks before they jog past your window in their activewear. The pressure is even worse on social media than it is out of the window. So, I did not want this piece to make anyone feel bad for where they are at, that would not be in keeping with the theme of the week at all, which is kindness.

However, I hope by explaining a little about my ups and downs with running, and how much it has helped me, that it might help a few of you who are also struggling. Making time for your body and your mind is offering yourself a huge kindness, and no matter the magnitude of the problems in the world right now, that is really important.

You can read more of the series of Mental Health Awareness blogs on the BVA website.